US to overturn entry ban on travelers with HIV

Obama says it hinders efforts to fight stigma

STEMMING THE ILLNESS President Obama said the HIV/AIDS stigma has kept people from getting tested and has helped spread the disease. STEMMING THE ILLNESS
President Obama said the HIV/AIDS stigma has kept people from getting tested and has helped spread the disease.
By Darlene Superville
Associated Press / October 31, 2009

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WASHINGTON - President Obama said yesterday that the United States will overturn a 22-year-old travel and immigration ban against people with HIV early next year.

The order will be finalized on Monday, Obama said, completing a process begun during the Bush administration. The United States has been among a dozen countries that bar entry to travelers with visas or anyone seeking a green card based on their HIV status.

Obama called the travel ban “a decision rooted in fear rather than fact’’ that ran counter to efforts to reduce the stigma of AIDS and US leadership in trying to stem the disease.

“If we want to be the global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it,’’ Obama said at the White House. “It’s a step that will encourage people to get tested and get treatment, it’s a step that will keep families together, and it’s a step that will save lives.’’

He made the announcement before signing a bill to extend the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program. Begun in 1990, the program provides medical care, medication, and support services to about 500,000 people, most of them low-income.

The bill is named for an Indiana boy who in 1984 contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion at age 13. White went on to fight AIDS-related discrimination against him and others like him and help educate the country about the disease. He died in April 1990 at age 18. His mother, Jeanne White-Ginder, attended the signing ceremony, as did several members of Congress and HIV/AIDS activists.

It was while White and others were fighting discrimination during a time of widespread fear and ignorance about AIDS that the Department of Health and Human Services in 1987 added the disease to the list of communicable diseases that disqualified a person from entering the United States.

The department tried in 1991 to reverse its decision but was opposed by Congress, which went the other way two years later and made HIV infection the only medical condition explicitly listed under immigration law as grounds for inadmissibility to the United States.

The law effectively has kept out thousands of students, tourists, and refugees and has complicated the adoption of children with HIV. No major international AIDS conference has been held in the United States since 1993, because HIV-positive activists and researchers cannot enter the country.

Obama said that by lifting the ban, the United States will take a step toward ending the stigma against people with HIV/AIDS, something he said has stopped people from getting tested and has helped spread the disease. More than 1 million people live with HIV/AIDS in the United States, and more than 56,000 new infections are reported every year.

Obama noted his own effort several years ago to help combat the stigma. During a 2006 visit to Kenya, his father’s native country, Obama and his wife, Michelle, publicly took an HIV/AIDS test.

The 11 other countries that ban HIV-positive travelers and immigrants are Armenia, Brunei, Iraq, Libya, Moldova, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Sudan, according to the advocacy group Immigration Equality.

Several such groups welcomed Obama’s announcement.

Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, said the ban pointlessly has barred people from the United States and separated families with no benefit to public health.

“Now, those families can be reunited, and the United States can put its mouth where its money is: ending the stigma that perpetuates HIV transmission, supporting science, and welcoming those who seek to build a life in this country,’’ said Tiven, whose organization works for fairness in immigration for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and HIV-positive people.

Senator John F. Kerry, who co-authored legislation that the Senate passed last year to lift the ban, also praised Obama’s decision.

“Today a discriminatory travel and immigration ban has gone the way of the dinosaur and we’re glad it’s finally extinct. It sure took too long to get here,’’ Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “We’ve now removed one more hurdle in our fight against AIDS, and it’s long overdue for people living with HIV who battle against stigma and bigotry day in and day out.’’